Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Movie Reviews x 3!

We've about reached our saturation point with holiday movies. Most of the movies we've seen this year we've seen before ... some of them many times. This past week we watched 3 movies: Christmas with the Kranks, The Muppets Christmas Carol, and A Christmas Carol (with Patrick Stewart). Though I enjoy this part of our family's "Christmas traditions" I'll be glad to shelve the holiday movies for another year.

I don't know if you've noticed, but most of the movies have similar themes: bad or down-and-out person has some moment of great conflict and the solution comes in the form of "Christmas spirit." Whereas some of the movies have scenes you could use as sermon illustrations, few have any particular spiritual merit. Yet, we go ahead and watch them andgiggle our way through some very clever antics.

Christmas with the Kranks was the first movie we watched this week. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we had already read Skipping Christmas by John Grisham. The movie and the book are both delightful, but for different reasons. Jamie Lee Curtis and Tim Allen star in the movie and play their parts well. Ms. Curtis is hilarious, Christmas-loving wife and mother whose husband convinces her that skipping Christmas for just this one year would be a great idea. Remembering her performances in various horror movies makes certain parts of this film kind of "vaudevillian." Tim Allen is pretty predictable (starts out as a jerk and ends up lovable); his scene with the Botox is laugh out loud funny.

Our second Christmas movie this week was one of our family favorites: The Muppets Christmas Carol. Michael Caine plays along with Kermit, Fozzy Bear, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Rizzo the Rat and the rest of the Muppets. Mr. Caine plays a marvelous Scrooge opposite a cast of puppets. He even sings! One of my favorite lines is Gonzo (the narrator) explains that "omniscient" means all-knowing. Rizzo then calls him "Mr. Hoity-Toity God-like Smarty Pants."

Though the story itself has some darker portions, it is by far the happiest version of the this classic that we've seen. This is definitely a movie to buy and keep on your shelf.

On Christmas Eve, after a fun meal, present opening and a game we snuggled one more time in the den to watch another version of Dickens's A Christmas Carol.One of my favorite scenes comes after Scrooge has spent time with all three ghosts. Patrick Stewart, a bona fide new man, arises to a new day... and has his first laugh in a long time:

"I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!" Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. "The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh, Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees!"

He was so fluttered and so glowing with his good intentions, that his broken voice would scarcely answer to his call. He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the Spirit, and his face was wet with tears. ...

"I don't know what to do!" cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. "I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!"

He had frisked into the sitting-room, and was now standing there: perfectly winded.

"There's the saucepan that the gruel was in!' cried Scrooge, starting off again, and going round the fireplace. "There's the door, by which the Ghost of Jacob Marley entered! There's the corner where the Ghost of Christmas Present sat! There's the window where I saw the wandering Spirits! It's all right, it's all true, it all happened. Ha ha ha!"

Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs!

Christmas Eve = Marathon

With a large family I've become a pretty organized person. The task of planning, buying, sorting and wrapping gifts for 7 wonderful children, a dear husband, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins is a mammoth job. I usually start buying gifts sometime after the new year and continue watching sales throughout the year. Even though I work hard to be prepared and to be on top of the game, Christmas Eve is always a flurry of last minute activity.

On Christmas Eve Jim and I cloister ourselves in our room to wrap the gifts. I've sorted the gifts for each child and usually set Jim to wrapping. Often, we bring a TV and DVD player into our room and watch some marathon of movies. One year Jim watched video after video of James Bond. I'll often put in musicals. This year, it was Narnia and "Rumpole of the Bailey." In years past we've finished them with no time to spare before unwrapping them. Somehow on this day, I also prepare for the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals while I clean the house.

Once the food is prepared, the gifts finished and the house tidy, we settle down as a family to eat a special meal and then open our gifts. Each year is a little different, depending on whether we are traveling out of town to either grandparents.

Some years I think I will give only gift cards. Or just a check. Or maybe I'll get our food ready-to-eat from Sam's Club.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Cookie Favorites

Our family does some extra baking during the holiday season. Not like my mother, who was baker-extraordinaire at Christmas, however. I learned early on that if I baked, I ate. Even if I hid the cookies, bars, etc., I still knew where they were. And no one in the family would know if I'd eaten a whole batch of cookies if they didn't even know those cookies existed.

My daughter, Faith, baked for a couple days in order to take baked goods as gifts to friends and co-workers. She tried some new recipes. My baking, on the other hand, will be our family's traditional stand-bys.

Below are the recipes that we always make:

Plantation Bars
1 pkg. almond bark (24 oz.)
1/4 cup peanut butter
1 cup salted peanuts, crushed
5 cups cereal (Rice Krispies or Cheerios)
(or skip the peanuts and use 6 cups cereal)
Melt the almond bark. Add peanut butter and mix well. Stir in cereal. Spread in a buttered pan or drop by teaspoonful on waxed paper.

Magic Cookie Bars
1/2 cup butter (melted)
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 cup chopped nuts (opt.)
1 cup chocolate chips
1 1/3 cups flaked coconut
15 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
Layer the ingredients in the above order. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes.

Gingerbread Boys
2 cups butter, softened
3 cups sugar
3 eggs
3/4 cup molasses
6 cups flour
3 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons baking soda
3 teaspoons cinnamon
3 teaspoons ginger
3 teaspoons cloves
1 cup flour for rolling
Thoroughly cream butter and sugar. Add egg and molasses and beat well. Add sifted dry ingredients. Mix thoroughly. Refrigerate for 1 hour or more. Roll on lightly floured surface. Cut with floured cookie cutters. Bake on greased cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 8 - 12 minutes. Bake smaller cookies for briefer times. Decorate if desired.

On Top of the Stove Cookies
Boil together for 1 minute:
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup milk.
Remove from head and add:
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup peanut butter
2 cups quick oats.
Drop by spoonfuls onto waxed paper.

Let me know if you try any of our family recipes.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Music Review: Blind Boys of Alabama: Go Tell it on the Mountain

A current favorite holiday CD, Blind Boys of Alabama: Go Tell it on the Mountain has been playing on repeat as I cook, bake cookies and clean in the kitchen. A mix of traditional Christmas songs (Joy to the World, Away in a Manger, O Come all Ye Faithful) and gospel flavored pieces (Last Month of he Year, I Pray on Christmaqs, Go Tell it on the Mountain), this CD features the tight 4-part harmonies that makes dramatic use of contrasting vocal leads. Some songs make you tap your toes; others tempt you to dance; while during the quieter ones you find yourself gently swaying.

It was at Alabama’s Talladega Institute for the Blind, in 1939, that the five blind boys first came together, initially calling their group "The Happyland Singers." They were re-christened the "Blind Boys" in 1948. Following is a quote from their website:
Since 1939, The Blind Boys of Alabama have sung a fervent blend of traditional and contemporary Gospel music. Much has changed during these seven prolific decades. Stylistic phases have waxed and waned; personnel has come and gone. 78 r.p.m. records have given way to LPs, followed by eight-track tapes, cassettes, and CDs. The Blind Boys’ audience – once rigidly segregated and confined to traditional Gospel venues – now reflects the group’s eclectic, global following, while their repertoire has expanded to embrace secular songs with a strongly spiritual message. Such wide acceptance is also evidenced by four Grammy Awards, an honor that didn’t exist when the Blind Boys started out. Even so, the Blind Boys’ lengthy saga remains a steadfast testament to constancy. Singer Jimmy Carter, who was there when the group was first formed, leads the band today with the firm conviction, joyous commitment, and gravitas that befit an elder statesman.

A Reviewer from an Appalachian college wrote: At the core of the Blind Boys' sound is four-part harmony that makes dramatic use of contrasting vocal leads.

Another reviewer from the BBC said: If you want to melt under the mistletoe and feel groovy as you make the stuffing, then get Go Tell it on the Mountain. I guarantee, your festival will flow.

So, if you're looking for that last minute gift for eclectic music lover in your family, this is a winner. (If you need a gift for me, I already have one.... you'll have to get something else.)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Movie Review: Fred Claus

It's Friday night and our family is snuggled in the den, the smallest and warmest room in the house. Keeping with our plan to watch mostly Christmas movies, we watched one that was new for us: Fred Claus. This movie stars Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatte, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates and Kevin Spacey. Fred is Santa's ne'er-do-well older brother who grew up in the shadow of the kid who could do no wrong. Fred finds himself in trouble and must retreat to the North Pole for help.

This movie is your expected mix of "cute and funny" with "stupid and vacuous." Some scenes reach actual ROFL status: Santa's secret service elves do Ninja moves, dance scenes in the workshop and Frosty's Tavern, the siblings anonymous meeting. Kevin Spacey plays Clyde Northcut an efficiency expert who threatens to shut down the North Pole. He walks around as a sort of "angel of death" in his black coat and thick-rimmed glasses.

Personally, I like my Christmas movies to be a bit cuter and cleaner. Vince Vaughn's character was a bit too "ghetto" for me. As in most movies, it all works out in the end, but I was disappointed in the overlay of a religious song with opening presents. The movie as a whole rated, for our family, an "OK, but we don't have to watch it again" rating. According to Yahoo Movies, it rates between a B and a C-.

One reviewer complained that Vince Vaughn, like many comedic actors, plays himself:

Much of the problem is Vince Vaughn himself, as he doesn't bother to play any character other than Vince Vaughn. And he's yet to perfect how to be likable and a jerk at the same time.

While we have a number of Christmas movies that we re-watch each year, Fred Claus just doesn't make the cut.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

My Son's Art

Since we homeschool, I get to spend a lot of time with my children. I listen to them and watch what they're doing. I don't really spend a lot of energy "keeping tabs" on my kids... it just happens because we're together so much.

Over the last couple of weeks I've been watching the progress of a drawing by my son. His art amazes me, especially since I'm not artistic at all.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Book Report: The Gift of the Magi

Another favorite regular for our family is O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." This short story about a young couple, Jim and Della, tells of love and sacrifice during a holiday season when times were tight. As is common to the short story genre, it's pithy and to the point. Rather than a full palate of colors, O. Henry roughly sketches out the story and lets the readers fill it in.

Over the years, this story has been re-told in a variety of forms. Micky Mouse and Sesame Street produced children's versions; for grown-ups Marie Osmond starred in a movie, The Gift of Love. You can find of variety on on-line, full text of the story . Teachers can download a Study guide to use in their classroom. My all-time favorite version of the story comes from Focus on the Family's Adventures in Odyssey audio series. Entitled "The Adventures of Madge and Guy," you'll giggle all the way through and learn a lesson to boot.

My daughter and I read this before bed the other night. Snuggled on the loveseat in our room, hot chocolate in hand, the story became a "jumping off place" to discuss gift giving, sacrifice, and loving others more than ourselves.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Book Report: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Some pieces of literature become yearly events at the Prichard home: Dickens's A Christmas Carol, O. Henry's Gift of the Magi, and Barbara Robinson's The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (TBCPE). We've just finished TBCPE amidst fresh giggles and pleas for "just one more chapter."

A synopsis from the back cover:
The Herdmans are absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lie and steal and smoke cigars (even the girls). They talk dirty, hit little kids, cuss their teachers, set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse, and take the name of the Lord in vain. So no one is prepared when the Herdmans invade church one Sunday-and decide to take over the annual Christmas pageant.

None of them has ever heard the Christmas story before. Their interpretation — the Wise Men are a bunch of dirty spies and Herod needs a good beating-- has a lot of people up in arms. But the actual pageant is full of surprises for everyone, starting with the Herdmans themselves.

I've wondered why this book is such a hit. I "Googled" the title and came up with page after page of community theaters performing this as a play. (My oldest daughter performed in the Northfield Arts Guild production almost 10 years ago.) How can we read this book year after year, knowing the stunts and dialogue by heart, and still anticipate next year's reading?

Here's what I think. Firstly, we're a bit fascinated by those Herdmans. Who doesn't like to sneak a peak (from a distance, of course) of these truly naughty children? I grew up down the street from a family of bullies and remember being both terrified and in awe of these boys. They were famous and infamous.

Ms. Robinson's style lends itself so well to reading out loud. Plenty of dialogue and clear narration make the chapters progress quickly and smoothly. There's no need to explain unusual vocabulary or to meander through convoluted sentences. She sketches out her characters so that your imagination can fill in the blanks... possibly with someone we already know. Interestingly enough, the young girl who narrates is almost non-descript, possibly so that we can put ourselves in her place and thoughts more easily.

This year my daughter was especially annoyed with Alice Wendlekin. Using my most "snotty" reading voice, she came across as an obnoxious tattle tale. By the end of the book, I think my daughter would have slugged Alice and hugged Imogene.

One section we re-read 3 times: (Mother is explaining the Christmas story)

"And, lo, the Angel of the lord came upon the," Mother went on, "and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and --"

"Shazam!" Gladys yelled, flinging her arms out and smacking the kid next to her.

"What?" Mother said. Mother never read "Amazing Comics."

"Out of the black night with horrible vengeance, the Mighty Marvo --"

"I don't know what you're talking about, Gladys," Mother said. "This is the angel of the Lord who comes to the shepherds in the fields, and ---"

"Out of nowhere, right? Gladys said. "In the black night, right?"

"Well ..." Mother looked unhappy. "In a way."

So Gladys sat back down, looking very satisfied, as if this was at least one part of the Christmas story that made sense to her.

Each year, as we end our reading, our eyes are a little moist because our hearts have been touched by the Herdmans and by a fresh telling of Jesus's birth.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Decorating for Christmas Prichard Style

When our children were younger, decorating for Christmas was a lively event. I often had special treats and, of course, lots of Christmas music. When our oldest were very young, we often invited singles in the church or college students to join us. We wanted to share with them the joy of little kids and the season -- we also needed extra hands. As much as little ones love decorating the tree, they really aren't very good at it.

Over the years, we've adjusted our decorating schemes. As our children became teenagers scheduling "decorating time" was a challenge. We weren't working around nap times any more. We had jobs, music rehearsals, hanging out with friends and church events to juggle. Some years, we had to "force" them to stay home so that we could have fun, happy family time. (I felt only a little bad about this.)
With a larger house, we not only have more room to decorate, but more room for storing those decorations. We've acquired garlands, wreathes, kissing balls, music boxes, etc. We even have our own little village (made of plaster of Paris and hand-painted by the children, themselves) displayed prominently on the mantle. Every year my parents give the children a special, collectible ornament. That's a lot of ornaments!

We've come up with a system that seems to work for us. Dad and whichever children are interested go to Hampton Hills to cut down a tree. After they've warmed up with hot chocolate or cider, we begin hauling up the many boxes of Christmas paraphenalia. While Dad cuts off the bottom branches, the rest of us set to rearranging the living room. Every piece of furniture has a different place during the holidays. Once the tree stand is in its pla ce, Dad brings the tree in. Usually I crawl under the tree to tighten the screws. Then we all stand and decide if it needs to be tilted this way or that. Dad's the one who usually cares, so we let him make the decisions.

With 6 boxes of decorations, not all of them go on the tree. I remind them that whatever gets taken out has to be put away. Usually, we set an hour for decorating the tree. Any more than that and kids lose interest or get "owly." Each child picks out what ornaments they want to hang. Occaisionally we have little tiffs over the suitability of this or that ornament, but most of the time they have fun going through the boxes. Once in a while, someone will pick out an especially unattractive piece and insist on putting up, much to the chagrin of the kid who made it. This year mercy was shown to the "Duct Tape Santa." The duct tape sling was removed and his arm was more carefully attached with glue.

Now that the children are older and there are fewer of them at home, the yearly decorating has become more fun and less of a chore. Our tree is now decorated. The lights are on the bannister and the mantle. Our special German wooden decoration is assembled. We're almost ready for Christmas!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Yellow Car Game

Thanks to my sister's children, our family acquired a new game to alleviate drive-time boredom. It's the "Yellow Car Game."

The object of the game is pretty simple: any time you see a yellow car, truck, van, etc, you call out "Yellow Car."

We have had to lay down some minor rules:
1. If you are alone and you see a yellow car, you have to call it out loud. Just thinking it doesn't count.
2. School buses don't count.
3. Business vehicles do count. (e.g. ServiceMaster)
4. Ties go to both people, unless it was obvious that someone really did start to say it first.
5. Cars can not be counted more than once on a particular car trip.

Advantages of the game:
-- Yellow cars are not as common and stick out in a crowd.
-- It give you something to do if you're on a long, boring drive.
-- It gives you something to do if you're on a short, haven't-we-been-here-before drive.
-- You become creative in your routes about town. "How can I get to the grocery store by driving past the car dealership?"

Disadvantages of the Game
-- Children yelling "Yellow Car" can be distracting and, worst case scenario, could cause an accident.
--- Paying more attention to the presence of yellow cars while driving can cause you to miss intersections, and disobey any variety of traffic laws.
-- Arguments over who saw the yellow car first can endure the rest of that particular trip.
-- Especially competitive children and parents may require intervention.

Some Quirks of the Game:
-- Yellow cars seen on TV and movies count.
-- Gold cars do not count.
--Yellow Volkswagen bugs merit "slug-a-bug" status.
-- It's completely fair to distract other players in the car when driving past known haunts of yellow cars.
-- Once you start playing, you're committed. If you don't want to play, don't ever start.

Of course, the best part of the game: winning! To win, you must see and call out a Yellow Hummer. When you do that, you have bested all of your playing colleagues. You can quit while you're on top, or start over.

Book Report: Skipping Christmas

Our family is getting back into the habit of reading aloud in the evenings. Maybe it's the coziness of a winter's night; maybe it's just that I'm sick of computers, TV and videos; maybe it's because if I hear someone say "I'm bored" again I'll ......

Since the Christmas season is upon us, I selected John Grisham's Skipping Christmas. It's a great little book from this well-known writer of suspence and intrigue. At Thanksgiving, Mr. and Mrs. Krank send their only child off to Peru to work with the Peace Corps. Rethinking the craziness and expense of a full-blown Christmas extravaganza, Luther Krank convinces his wife, Norah, that a cruise would be just the thing. For this one year, they would "skip" Christmas. The bulk of the story revolves around the affects this has on friends, relatives and neighbors.

It's a sweet book with scenes that made us giggle. (I won't share them here... I'd hate to ruin any of the little surprises.) It's not an overly long book; we read it in less than a week. The conflict, climax and denoument were well-timed and well-suited for reading out loud. However, I must warn you that a few inappropriate words and scenes may need on-the-spot editting by the reader. (It depends on your crowd.)

Now that we've finished the book, we plan to watch Christmas with the Kranks, the movie taken from this story starring Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis. Our family is just nerdy enough to re-watch a movie and compare it to the written source.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Magic Soup

I've always loved the book Stone Soup. This is a story of three clever soldiers who trick a stingy village into giving them a meal. My favorite aspect of this book is the subtle way in which the soldiers are able to make something out of nothing. Vegetables and meat, once hidden from the traveling men, make their way into the large pot. Laughing, feasting and dancing replace the villagers' wary suspicions.

With the same gusto and cleverness, I make "Magic Soup." Whether I use a carcass from a turkey or one from Cub's broasted chicken, I have made many pots of this soup for my family.

Others call it "turkey stock" or simply broth. But in our house, it's Magic Soup. After I've pulled off the larger bits of meat I place the bones, skin and drippings in my third largest pot. Two gallons of water nicely cover it all. Whole, cleaned carrots, celery, parsley and onions join the water. After the pot comes to a boil, I turn the heat down and "simmer the heck out of it." (Another bloggers words, not mine) Then the magic begins.

The fragrance makes its way up to the bedrooms. The slight bubbling and rattling can be heard in the living room. As people go through the kitchen, they stop to give it a stir. My husband asks if I know that something is cooking and should he turn it off. The cat becomes a little more vocal.

When some time has passed, (not a little, not a lot) those 2 gallons of water have magically turned into 3 quarts of rich, golden-brown broth. After straining out the bones and mushy vegetables, the pot cools on the back step. Another magic transformation occurs as it gels and the fat hardens on the top. Now it's ready to become the secret ingredient in any number of recipes.